Dr. Priya Sampathkumar has been busy fighting a global pandemic. Sampathkumar is a consultant in the division of infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There, she was leading a research team working with the NBA to determine how many players and staff members have antibodies to COVID-19, which could potentially provide immunity to reinfection. The results of her research helped jumpstart the league’s reopening while also aiding the global battle against COVID-19.
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What are your thoughts on the current state of the pandemic, in relation to when it first started spreading? Is there any new data that suggests, or do you see any signs of, a vaccine being produced sooner rather than later?
The pandemic shows no signs of abating. Cases continue to rise in most parts of the world. The only silver lining is that the infection fatality rate (the proportion of infected individuals who die) is now lower than in the early days of the pandemic. This is despite the fact that no real effective therapies for the disease have been developed so far. The possible explanations for the lower death rate include:
1) Better understanding of the disease process by health care professionals resulting in better medical care including treatments like positioning patients, giving them blood thinners to prevent clots, recognition of patients who are at high risk of deterioration
2) Cases are more widely distributed and therefore healthcare systems in any given area are not overwhelmed with huge numbers of cases, leaving them in better shape to care for hospitalized patients. This however may be changing in some parts of the world, where cases are rising rapidly
3) Widespread use of masks may be decreasing the load of virus that people are exposed to, making the resultant illness milder and less likely to result in death
Several vaccines are in Phase 3 trials which is the final step before a vaccine is licensed for use. One vaccine trial (Moderna) just completed enrollment and data from this trial is expected to be available by mid-November. If this vaccine is found to be safe and effective, then we should have a few million doses of the vaccine available by the end of the year. Backed by government funding, vaccine companies have been manufacturing vaccine doses even prior to approval, which means there will not be a wait between approval and distribution of vaccine. That’s the good news.
The two leading vaccine contenders however do require 2 doses of the vaccine given 4 weeks apart, so it will take at least 6 weeks for a person who gets the vaccine to develop protection from the vaccine. And it will takes months to get 60-70% of the world’s population vaccinated which is what it will take to really take to end the pandemic through herd immunity. So masking and physical distancing are here with us through at least summer of 2021. Masks are the equivalent of vaccines at the present time – we need to get everyone to use them and use them consistently.
The Mayo Clinic developed a finger stick test which allows testing to occur both quicker, and in a less invasive manner - what were the results for this method like in terms of accuracy?
The test was shown to be as effective in screening for COVID antibodies as a test done on blood drawn from a vein. The test can be easily done at home. A small drop of blood obtained by finger stick is placed on a card that can then be mailed in to a laboratory. This eliminates the need to go in to a medical facility for testing, and makes the test less expensive and more accessible. Some positive tests will still need a second confirmatory test but this eliminated the medical visit in the majority of patients.
The NBA bubble was a huge success and you and your team had a lot to do with this from research to testing. How did you get involved with bringing the NBA season back? Was it partly due to the fact that the Mayo Clinic has sponsorship ties with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx and the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves?
Yes, that was part of the reason. I was also serving as a pandemic advisor to the Minnesota Timeberwolves early on, and the research collaboration arose from that. The NBA has been very forward thinking and has partnered with medical researchers around the nation to not only get the best testing and advice for their players but also advance science and bring back all sports safely.
During your research you worked with the NBA to determine how many players/staff had antibodies to COVID-19; can you disclose your findings in terms of percentages and whether or not professional athletes are more likely to have antibodies as opposed to your average human being?
I can’t go into details but the rates varied by team location and reflected rates in the community that the team was located in. The NBA was the first sports league to shut down, after some of their players tested positive. I think this was a wise decision and by cancelling games that brought huge crowds into stadiums, they likely saved many lives.
What were your thoughts before the NBA restarted in a bubble, in terms of how successful it could be at remaining COVID-free?
I wasn’t sure that it would work. Hats off to the NBA for staying the course, maintaining their strict protocols for testing and keeping players and staff safe. It was great to have sports back on TV – and I have a kid who is a huge LeBron fan – so the outcome of the Finals was celebrated at my house.
Do you have any fun or interesting stories from interacting with NBA players/staff during your research that you could/would be willing to share?
Not really...Will you settle for my personal view point that MJ is the GOAT? It is a running feud between the grownups and kids at my house (MJ vs LeBron) and I’d like to get some support for my viewpoint.
Before his mother passed away, Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Karl Anthony Towns donated $100,000 to the Mayo Clinic with the hopes that testing capabilities, availability, and Mayo Clinic’s overall COVID-19 response would be increased; Mayo Clinic expected this donation to help increase testing capacity from 200 per day to over 1,000 tests in the weeks that followed - was this accurate, and was the donation useful in helping other areas of COVID-19 research?
Yes, the funding did enable Mayo Clinic to ramp up testing, we now have perform more than 2000 tests/day. The NBA also funded Mayo Clinic research into whether plasma (which is a component of blood) from people who had recovered from COVID could be used as treatment in COVID infected individuals
Aside from work, what interests/hobbies do you take part in during your spare time? We dug through your twitter a little and saw that you’re passionate about watching your kids play soccer, Shahrukh Khan, and Peru - anything else?
I love reading and crosswords. I love to travel, my most amazing trip was to the Galapagos islands, followed by Antarctica. I have recently discovered Tamil movies and have been binge watching movies. My husband loves music and we watch a lot of music videos together. We are huge SPB fans and the last month has been really hard. Incidentally my husband first met SPB at a concert in Toronto organized by Arya Canada in 2013 – this led to a long friendship that was very, very meaningful to us.
Recently you’ve been actively advocating for Americans to vote; earlier this summer, you also shared some of your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement which at the time was seeing a lot of traction; as a woman of colour, do you have any thoughts you would like to share regarding how we as a world can move closer towards bridging racial gaps that still exist in our society today?
Racism in America has received a lot of attention recently and I hope that after the 2020 election we can move towards real conversations about racism and other types of societal bias in this country. Acknowledging that systemic racism exists is the first step on a long and hard journey to overcoming it. But this problem is not unique to the United States– it is a worldwide phenomenon. Colonialism was at the root of racism, but South Asians have perpetuated racism, colorism, casteism and really institutionalized it. Matrimonial ads placed by the Indian diaspora are a case study in bias. As far as moving closer to bridging these gaps, I think that young people are the answer. If we adults do nothing other than not allowing our biases to influence the next generation, I think the world will be a better place. And of course, if we actually listen to what children have to say and work with them we can accelerate the pace of change.
Lastly, do you have any advice for other Tamils (men and women) who aspire to be in a position that you are in today?
I worked hard at my education and career, but I also had some lucky breaks and people in my life who wanted me to succeed. So I would advise young people to work hard and to try to surround themselves with people who have similar aspirations. This is a cliché, but keep believing that if one door closes, another door opens.
Do you have any mentors that have helped you in the progression of your career? Do you think everybody needs mentors? How does somebody find a mentor?
I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors. Teachers in high school who encouraged me to believe in myself, my parents and 4 hypercritical older sisters, my teachers in medical school all helped me become who I am. Mentors in residency and fellowship – Dr. Chaudhry, Dr. Danielson and Dr. Dunn helped me become the best version of myself. Finally my husband who is also a physician, taught me the importance of both working hard and playing hard and always putting family first.
Yes, everybody needs mentors. Mentors can be formal or informal. You don’t have to limit yourself to one mentor – you may need several for different aspects of your life. Find someone you admire and want to be like, ask to meet with them and then go from there. Regardless of where you are in your life path, you can also gain a lot by mentoring others – I am constantly learning from students and trainees who I mentor.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Priya looking back?
The decisions I made at 16 were life-changing – I would tell her she was making the right ones.
How would you describe your dream life?
I am living my dream life. I love my work as a physician, I love the community I live in, my work colleagues. If there’s anything I’d change it would be doing away with winter.
What is your favourite book(s) you’ve read recently and why?
I read a lot but mostly escapist crime fiction. I recently read something completely different “Alchemy of Secrets” by a friend of mine – Priya Balasubramanian. It is set in Bangalore and was very evocative of the India I grew up in, and highlighted the growing religious intolerance and the corruption that is India’s undoing.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
COVID has emphasized that the most important things in life are family, friends and good health.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
Educating children. Giving them the tools to change the world for the better.
How would you describe the Tamil community in the US?
I live in a small town and am not really connected to the larger Tamil community in the US. Most of my friends here are North Indians, but my husband and I have introduced them to the magic of SPB. A Punjabi friend of ours surprised us by learning and singing “Malare Mounama" in Tamil for our wedding anniversary. So you could say we are drawing more people into the Tamil community.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Pongal vadai – sambar with filter coffee (best version I’ve had is Saravana Bhavan in Scarborough).
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
That’s a really tough question to answer. Can I name a few? I’ll be giving away my age – but Salangai Oli, Varumayin Niram Sivappu were a couple of my favorites from my youth. I only recently watched Soothu Kavvum although it is a few years old– very different genre and absolutely loved it. Super Deluxe was another great one.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
I never really appreciated Tamil culture when I lived in India. It is something I have learnt to appreciate after moving to the US. Tamil culture to me is stunning temple architecture, the beauty of the Tamil language juxtaposed with Madras slang, the scent of jasmine flowers, bustling Marina beach, stunning Kanchipuram silks, filter coffee, the music of Ilayaraja and AR Rahman, the voice of SPB.
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